They cant have been chickens. What would chickens be doing at that altitude?
And the Crash Investigation Report was right: Human Error. He’d left the Ion Thrust Guards open. He’d left himself open. But Captain Stellon had always seen his life playing out like a Sci-Fi film, especially when he’d got to fly the 36. So the bird strike was not how things were supposed to end.
Instead of seeing his life flash before him in the conventional manner, Captain Stellon had watched as a whole series of chickens were obliterated, one after the other, just inches from his nose. Such messy birds. Like something he’d never quite got round to.
Twelve years earlier he’d sat in the cockpit of the 36 (officially the XDR815Mk4.36) for the first time, overwhelmed by a sense of childish delight. The ergonomic ease of the controls and the seamless transition phases of the CI system made for the famously responsive handling of the fastest and most agile fighter of its time.
As Captain Stellon took to the skies of Terraform 8 on that maiden flight, he was warmly reunited with his fourteen-year-old self on the day his father had upgraded his bicycle to a brand new HillSpiller. And just like the teenager scrambling across the Crumplelands of Terraform 7, Captain Stellon’s eyes were wide and bright as the 36 climbed out of terrestrial sight and left the atmosphere.
He’d been given a full cycle out of training just to get used to it – total freedom to fly, without set objectives or destinations. No other mission than to please himself. So he’d swooped down through the thin atmosphere of Caviteus and plunged the 36 into the huge fissure in its outer crust.
Entering the vast subterranean tunnel system, he found he could negotiate every twist with total confidence. It was like having superpowers bestowed upon you. Then easing back on the FAU stick he felt the 36 surge upwards out of a crater and hurtle into the eternal starlit nothingness of space.
As G-force goes, it was close to orgasmic, and walking back across the strip on Terraform 8 he saw his commander waiting there with raised eyebrows and a big grin on his face. All Captain Stellon said by way of response was, “Sex. Good as sex.”
Of course there had been some close calls in some of the missions since then. To put it mildly. He’d lost two wingmen over those twelve years. And it was true that he sometimes sat for a few seconds after he’d strapped himself in, just looking at the familiar lines and angles of the interior, wondering if there was something funereal about them. A similar thought had probably been crossing the minds of fighter pilots since the dawn of aviation (Captain Stellon liked his history. Especially all that stuff about Earth: the two World Wars, Planetary Degradation and the Battles of Exodus. Fascinating and mad. All leading up to the AFZ he now patrolled. The Autonome-Free Zone. The last bastion of human conflict in the Near Interstellar, a region of space completely free of unmanned craft, by Universal Treaty. Just like nuclear warheads and biological terrorism in earlier times, the potential for Autonome supremacy was accepted as the latest existential threat to humanity. Or at least, that was the theory. In practice the AFZ was just another arena: a place where man could still exercise the freedom to kill man, where power struggles could still be played out and human history could continue unhampered by the regulatory effect of Autonomous Society. Conflict was legitimized now as an essential feature of what it is to be human, with conventional warfare its most sustainable expression).
So Captain Stellon was just another player in an ancient martial succession. Nothing out of the ordinary. That’s what he kept telling himself when he faced potential dangers. And make no mistake, Captain Stellon knew what it meant for things to be out of the ordinary. Because there was something about him that was not at all normal. Something he kept secret.
It had plagued him for as long as he could remember. A presence coming and going but never far away. Always just waiting in the wings until things got too comfortable for him. Just like that second day in the 36.
Things started going wrong: Failing display signals, emergency warning alerts. Most worrying, the holographic co-pilot had failed to materialize, let alone diagnose the problem. So he was reduced to tugging at the User Manual which had got wedged between his seat and the moulded interior. It fell open on the page identifying all the various controls: Large FAU dial, Switch Column, FAU Gauge, Directional Joystick.
It didn’t seem to be telling him much.
Small FAU Dial, Alternating Button Row (Big/Small), FAU Stick, Alternating Button/Switch Column.
In fact, it was as good as useless. And then it started getting really wayward:
FAU (Fuckwit Acceleration Unit), Shitehawk Release Switch, Twinge Diaphragm, Twat Refraction Dial, Knobend Beach Party.
He didn’t need to turn the page. It was obvious. This was one of Felquick’s little jokes. Captain Stellon heard the sound of a familiar throat being cleared behind him and turned to see Felquick’s smug expression: “Well you don’t think those controls actually do anything, do you? Hahahahaha. Surely that came up in your therapy sessions? Didn’t you think to ask them why you’re always surrounded by so much bullshit technology? Hahahaha.”
“It’s you that needs therapy, Felquick. Not me. What the hell are you on about? What’s Knobend Beach Party got to do with astronautics?”
“Exactly, Captain Stellon. My thoughts exactly. A question for our time.”
He first met Felquick back in college. Miss Chakrabarti was doing her best to introduce Astrobiology 101. They still had those ridiculous Synch Screens back then, so half the class was asleep behind them.
“Think back to the time when humanity was still confined to planet Earth. Before Planetary Degradation and the rise of the Estonians. Imagine how strange it must have been to live on a planet so full of life – insects, birds, mammals, reptiles, plants everywhere – and to look up at a silent universe. Especially when you consider they knew how old the universe was, so they knew life had had time and space to evolve a million times over. The biggest question for them was: ‘Why is the Universe so EMPTY of life’.
“The Fermi Paradox.”
“Thankyou Mehmet, yes, they actually gave it a name. And they came to the conclusion that something prevented life from developing beyond a certain point: The Great Filter. This was worrying because whatever it was, humanity would face it too. But then what happened in I.E. 109?”
“Discovery of Finextrical Stipupedes on Planet Laikmaa.”
“Thankyou Mehmet. But please put your hand up next time. So, yes, we began to discover new lifeforms on other planets. They may only have been simple lifeforms, but no longer could we ask ‘Why is the universe so EMPTY?’ What became the new burning question of science?”
Mehmet and a girl at the back put their hands up.
“Yes, at the back” Miss Chakrabarti said.
“Why is the universe so stupid?”
Miss Chakrabarti had to wait for the laughter to die down. “Well, Stipupedes may not be the most intelligent lifeforms, it’s true.”
Captain Stellon wasn’t listening to her anymore. He had turned round to look at the young woman on the back row. It was the first time he’d really noticed her, the person who would play such a crucial role in his life.
Perhaps it wasn’t surprising then that Felquick chose that same day to reveal himself. It probably suited his sense of dramatic timing to appear on the day Kaitar insulted the universe.
Leaving the classroom, the students naturally gravitated into their little groups as Captain Stellon and a few other introverts found themselves walking alone again. He kept his eyes on the dark figure of Kaitar as she moved swiftly ahead of the crowd.
“Mmm. You might want to get to know her…”
It was that familiar voice in his head, but this time it was coming from just behind him – a man wearing a raincoat and a trilby, sat on the steps of the portico.
“Excuse me?” said Captain Stellon, turning to the figure on the steps.
“Well she seems interesting, don’t you think? And she’s right about the Near Interstellar. It’s a fairly stupid place, when all’s said and done. Apart from us of course.” He smiled.
“Sorry. Have we met?”
“My apologies. I suppose a formal introduction is in order. The name’s Felquick.”
“Yes, Felquick, of course.’ They shook hands. “Richard Stellon. Nice to meet you.”
“Indeed. Although we’ve been on speaking terms for a long time now. So if you don’t mind I’ll continue to call you Captain Stellon.”
“Yes, why do you call me that?” Asked Captain Stellon, not fully appreciating how mad their conversation had become.
“It’s something you’ll grow into. It makes things easier for my readers.”
“Yes, but let’s not get bogged down in metaphysics. Just think of all of this…” he motioned widely with his arm “…as my creation – a kind of simulation, if you like. Round here, what I say goes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing from your perspective. The Great Filter your teacher was talking about, for instance. I can tell you what that is. I can solve that mystery for you. It’s language. The chances of abstract symbolism evolving in an animal with opposable thumbs are virtually zero: That leap from grunting apes enjoying a bit of mutual grooming to the Theory of General Relativity. But any explanation will do – this is my universe, after all.” His eyes softened into something approximating sympathy. “So you don’t have to worry about the Great Filter, ok?” Felquick was looking over Captain Stellon’s shoulder now as he went on. “Besides, you’ve got enough to worry about, without the extinction of the human species coming into it.”
Suddenly a woman was speaking: “They say talking to yourself is the first sign of madness.”
It was the girl from the Astrobiology class. Captain Stellon glanced back to see what Felquick made of this development, but he was gone. Nowhere to be seen. He turned back to the young woman who seemed amused at his antics.
“Yes, you may be right there. I think I’m probably losing it,” apologised Captain Stellon, jokingly, but with a real concern he couldn’t quite conceal.
“You’re not the only one,” said Kaitar. “I think I left my bag in the classroom. They lock them after the lessons, don’t they? Do you know where I can get the key?”
Sure enough, it was still there. She picked up her bag and turned to Captain Stellon.
“That’s a relief! Thanks for your help. My name’s Kaitar, by the way.”
“No problem, Kaitar. I’m Richard. It’ll be good to have someone to sit with in class.”
For a split second he thought he’d overstepped the mark, but she continued: “Listen, can I get you a coffee or something? My place is just round the corner.”
On the way to her flat they covered the basics. He, training to be a pilot at the military academy and taking Astrobiology as an elective; she, majoring in both philosophy and astrobiology.
Before making the coffee she lingered in the background for a few seconds, observing Captain Stellon as he examined her collection of resinite printed birds, including a life-size Ostrich.
“Some of these are mythical, right?” asked Captain Stellon.
“No! They’re all actual species that once existed. I spent ages getting them right. I can give you the genetic read-outs if you like.”
“That wont be necessary,” joked Captain Stellon, aware that he was in danger of fulfilling the stereotype of the uncultured military cadet. “They are…” he searched for the word, “…beautiful.”
“I’ll make the coffee” said Kaitar, heading to the kitchen. She seemed pleased.
Captain Stellon sat down on the comfy sofa, spreading his arms across the back, and allowed himself a sigh of satisfaction. On the wall opposite was a large poster – Lainevool’s masterpiece The Crucifixion of Elon Musk by the Estonians. It gave Captain Stellon a sudden pang of… what? Loneliness? Fear? He couldn’t be sure of these feelings. Perhaps it was just the way he was sitting that made him identify with the figure on the cross, abandoned on the lower slopes of Mons Olympos.
But why would Kaitar have this poster on her wall? And in such a prominent position? Surely she wasn’t some cranky Muskovian?
Felquick: “I wouldn’t read too much into any of this crap, Captain. It’s basically your standard student fare – unachievable idealism and pointless irony.”
Not now Felquick! Just leave this to me!
Interior monologue all too often became dialogue for Captain Stellon, and he knew he was susceptible to Felquick’s sardonic advice. He refocused on the picture: the Estonians shuffling away down the mountain towards the primitive Mars station below, the epic sweep of the Martian landscape into the distance. He could not deny its mesmerizing effect. As a history painter, Lainevool must have sensed that Musk’s crucifixion would be a major turning point. He wasn’t wrong. It was the pivotal event in the rise of Estonia. Lainevool could not have known that at the time, but he would have read the reports like everyone else: Medical warnings that widespread malnutrition was becoming the norm, accounts of clandestine rituals among the settlers and the formation of a ‘Muskovian’ cult around the figure of their founding father. One has to remember that this was at the time of the first Martian births. There had been a series of traumatic still births, until it was realised that Gravity Compensation Therapy was a must during pregnancy. And then the first few successful births – the first truly Martian babies. There were even rumours of a prophecy – in some strangely atavistic echo of Christianity – that Elon Musk would die on Planet Mars.
In retrospect it is too easy to say that Musk’s much heralded trip to the Red Planet as a morale booster for the pioneering community was ill-advised. But from a historical perspective, the really interesting story is how all this relates to the Rise of the Estonians.
Within two hundred years of their independence as a nation state on Planet Earth, they had become the pre-eminent political force in the entire Solar System. It was one of those wonderful quirks of history: The young, ambitious Estonian nation, one of the very first to embrace digital society on Earth, becoming the trusted neutral custodian of the newly emerging Autonomous Society and welcoming the opportunity to send their people en masse to the Martian outpost; but it was the crucifixion of Musk and the diplomatic row that followed (not to mention the racial violence in the USA targeting anyone remotely Baltic in appearance, including many non-Estonians and several who, as one newspaper pointed out “looked a lot less like they were from the Baltic than Elon Musk himself”), that prompted a very astute Estonian technician to make some small changes to two lines of code in the Autonomous Society Protocol software just days before its final ratification, ensuring Estonian supremacy in the known universe for the foreseeable future.
Needless to say, the historians tend to play down these key events, placing them within the larger historical processes. Certainly the very idealism of man’s early collaborations in space, like the International Space Station, had provided the backdrop of good-willed internationalism for Estonia’s meteoric trajectory across the Solar System. The great powers on Earth were profoundly committed to their own earthly power bases (and power struggles), and had never really considered Estonian stewardship of interplanetary Autonomous Society as anything other than political expedience – a temporary measure as the hostilities that would lead to the Battles of Exodus began to occupy people’s minds more and more. Nobody wanted to extend the battlelines into the Solar System and, if truth be told, there were many who still didn’t believe independent extra-terrestrial communities would last long even after the first successful births on Mars.
On top of all this political short-sightedness one has to factor in the exponential rate of technological development. That the most far-reaching political act of the first millennium I.E. involved nothing more than a minor alteration to a piece of software code, should have been a clear indication that Artificial Intelligence had already come to dominate human affairs; but like the Industrial Revolution, Global Warming and Planetary Degradation, the tightening stranglehold of Artificial Intelligence was met with the same slow incredulity that chickens seem to display at first light each morning.
Not everyone had been so passive of course; on top of every chicken coop there’s a cockrel announcing the passing of time. Elon Musk for one, an instrumental force in technological development, had observed first-hand some of the basic mechanisms of history, which he thought of as another dynamic process to be managed.
Unlike the Kings of old, his was a power only half invited, but he would receive his Shakespearean reversal nonetheless. It is thought that the elderly Musk, sibron-taped onto a makeshift cross of tubular elements on the lower cliff escarpment of Mons Olympos, probably didn’t last much longer than a couple of Mars days before giving up the ghost, ample time to consider the futility of panicking… and the futility of not panicking.
It just goes to show: No matter how crazy your cult, if you act on its prophecies they become self-fulfilling. The crucifixion of Elon Musk marked the end of the Common Era, and Lainevool’s masterpiece was often now subtitled ‘Year Zero of the Interplanetary Era’.
It sent a chill down Captain Stellon’s spine, but the more he engaged with the picture, the more convinced he became that it was, in fact, an inspired choice for her living room – a sign of great aesthetic and cultural sophistication.
Felquick: “You fancy her, don’t you!”
“Give it a rest, Felquick.”
Felquick: “If the girl brought out a collection of human remains you’d probably take it as the poetic gesture of a sensitive soul, or some such bollocks.”
“You’re much politer in person. Why would that be, I wonder? Much more respectful. You’ll have witnessed my considerable kick-boxing skills of course – seeing as you’re the self-styled overseer of all this.”
Felquick: “Dream on, kid.”
Kaitar came back through with the coffees.
“I didn’t have you down as a Muskovian,” joked Captain Stellon.
“Oh that!” she replied, glancing at the poster. “No that’s just a reminder of our ignominious beginnings.”
“Hey you cant use words like that with me. I’m a cadet remember.”
“Let’s just say it wasn’t our proudest moment,” explained Kaitar.
“That depends on your beliefs, doesn’t it?”
“True. Our parents’ generation wouldn’t be so dismissive. You know – your standard conservatives, I mean – big believers in Planetary Colonisation – not practising Muskovians exactly, but a kind of reverence for the prophetic nature of it all,” she said, looking at the image of the crucifixion again.
“So you don’t support the Planetary Colonisation Program then?”
“Not really, no.” She paused, weighing up the need for honesty. “This idea that the continuation of the human species is the greatest good: it’s bullshit. It’s an excuse for a rapacious form of life. We’ve become like locusts.”
Captain Stellon’s racing thoughts halted at the impasse. He nodded slowly as, for the first time, they briefly looked each other in the eye without speaking. It wasn’t approval, but understanding. “Well, I’ll be following orders in the AFZ before long,” he went on, “assuming I manage to graduate, that is!”
“Whoa! You’re already resigned to your fate as cannon fodder!” She shook her head. “I’d give that some more thought if I were you.”
“Oh I have, believe me! I’ve always wanted to be a pilot. Since I was a kid.”
“Yeah, it must be fun,” she conceded with a warm, enigmatic smile. “I do have a plan of my own,” she added thoughtfully, conscious now of the flimsiness of ideological objection – all this talk of hers.
She gave him a searching look and then changed tack: “Have you ever been to the Astrobiology Specimen Museum? It’s full of the most mind-blowing alien lifeforms. And guess what? Virtually all of them came from Earth.” Captain Stellon had nothing to add, so she went on, alone. “I sometimes think our whole civilisation… the whole Interplanetary Era… our terraformed lives, this autonomous society – I mean, all it really is… is a life support system… it’s something we inherited from disaster. I’m probably not making myself clear, but it really was Planetary Degradation that taught us how to live in space. The more hostile we made Earth, the more we learned how to cope out here, and now we spend all our time constructing these sterile recollections of paradise lost that we call home.”
Captain Stellon was losing the thread of her argument. “You said you had a plan?” Those were words you could latch onto: a plan.
“I’m going back.” She smiled again. That smile which, he was beginning to realise, was capable of dissolving all his reservations about her. But he still didn’t have a clue what she was on about. “To Earth.” she added.
“Back to the Old World? Rather you than me!”
“That’s what they all say. Do you know anyone who’s actually been there?”
“No. But then I don’t know anyone who’s been to Hades X37 either.”
“Earth is still a dynamic system. It’s always changing slowly. And migration has been going on for centuries now…”
“Unregistered migration. To the primitive outposts of Setsiad and the Polylunar Complex of Vetripalson,” interrupted Captain Stellon.
“…which has changed the demographic on Earth dramatically.” She ignored his remark as an irrelevance to the conversation. “There are regions now where you can go beyond AS systems, where the unregistered are no longer hostile to strangers. Atmospheric Stabilisation has definitely paid off. There are even reports of reverse migration.”
“Yeah, but even without considering the dangers of the unregistered, you’ve got to contend with the ancient infrastructure of the AS System, and all those entrenched, reactionary views they still cling onto. It’s complicated. About 90% of the population is native, you know – tracing their families way back into the Common Era and not one of them has stepped foot on another planet. They say a lot of the old hostilities linger on. And let’s face it, it’s poor. It’s an impoverished planet. The Estonian High Command has deliberately neglected Earth since day one. The place is screwed. It’s all politics, Kaitar.”
Kaitar allowed his speech to hang in the air for a while, like a projection of his own unexamined mindframe. “Anyway, I’ve applied for Earth Recon with the Astrobiology Department. I’m just waiting for AS transfer codification and I should be free to finish my studies on Earth.”
Captain Stellon had noticed the sudden cooling of her tone. “Oh I see. You’re actually going then! Wow, well that’s… that’s quite something. ET goes home! I’m really interested in Earth history, as it happens.”
Captain Stellon went on to outline some of his favourite moments of Earth history, but their dialogue had lost its early promise. As the pauses grew longer, he soon felt that unmistakable shift in psychic location from the point of equidistance between two individuals in deep conversation, and his mind retreated to the cage of its skull as he rose from the sofa with expressions of polite gratitude for the hospitality shown.
“You fucked it up!” said Felquick as Captain Stellon walked away from the apartment.
“Oh I fucked it up, did I? I thought this was all your doing, all your ‘creation’. I think you’ve got to take some blame here. And you can take Setsiad and the Polylunar Complex of Vetripalson and shove them right up your arse, Felquick.”
“That’s the spirit, Captain!”
TWO YEARS LATER …
Captain Stellon sat on the Simuflex contemplating the two pills in the palm of his hand, one red, one blue. He was trying not to have second thoughts.
He’d failed his final year at cadet college and developed a deep resentment towards the treadmill he was on. He’d begun to see his life as a series of missed opportunities in the service of his career and felt like he was struggling for air.
His brief encounter with Kaitar had stuck in his mind (much more than the series of casual relationships following the faculty dances). The first thing he did when he learned he’d failed his year-end exam was to track her down on the system. He knew exactly why he was doing it too. She’d been unimpressed with him. She thought he was a dick. How did she put it? “Cannon Fodder”. A bit harsh perhaps, but she’d worked out that he wasn’t his own man. And so his memory of Kaitar had become emblematic of all his lost opportunities. At some level he needed to redress that situation.
With just her first name and old accommodation sector, linked to his own identity footprint log, her image was in front of him. She was working at a company called Interloper Inc. “So she never did make it to Earth. Working for a corporation! Ha! Forced to compromise by the real world.” Captain Stellon was talking to himself, which was usually Felquick’s cue to pipe up: “You know you’ll have me out of a job if you keep up with this level of cynicism.” Captain Stellon smirked, a rare moment of complicity between the two.
He checked out Interloper Inc. on the system – a small independent gaming company – and found Kaitar’s name listed in the Research and Development department. Then he noticed the announcement tag: Volunteers required for psycho-active trials of Earth II arena, a new game in development. Hourly payment in accordance with universal clinical trial protocol. For further details contact Interloper/547Z.
And so here he was, sat on the simuflex wearing a surgical gown.
“What exactly are these pills for again?”
“The blue one’s an artificial neurotransmitter. You can think of it as a perceptual booster. The red one’s an hallucinogen. Mild dose of lysergic acid.”
“What!? You’re not serious?”
“It helps to flesh out the experience,” explained Kaitar. “We’ve found it significantly improves ratings in the post-immersion feedback.”
“Well that’s hardly surprising. Lysergic acid would flesh out a walk across the room.”
“Very mild, don’t worry.” Kaitar was chuckling to herself as Captain Stellon, at once pleased he’d made her laugh and anxious about what he’d let himself in for, necked both pills, lay back on the simuflex and let the machine adjust to his physical parameters.
“Just relax now. This will involve no effort on your part. There isn’t even a game structure or goal at this stage of development, so we just need you to relax and the inputs should take care of the rest. You’ll be back with us in just a few minutes, though it will probably feel longer than that.”
Captain Stellon was nervous. He’d never been a gamer and this was in at the deep end – a clinical trial for an untested psycho-active scenario… on acid. That had to be about as concerning a prospect as a combat mission in the AFZ. He automatically began running through a mental checklist: which pocket of his trousers he’d left his coder in, whether he’d shut down the reflector system properly before he left his pod that morning. It was something the cadet college had drilled into them, that moment before take off when everything needs to be double checked. But his attention was drawn back to the present by something banking out of his peripheral vision and then stabilizing just inches from his eyes.
A dragonfly. It made minute adjustments to its coordinates causing it to wobble twice and then just hung there, working its wings at an inconceivable rate, in order to remain perfectly motionless.
It was observing him. It was definitely observing him. Perfectly still. Like it was the most stationery thing in a world of swaying forms. Richard Stellon looked around. He was stood on the banks of a river. He could feel the warmth of the Sun on his back. Suddenly the dragonfly banked left and was away. He looked down. He was completely naked.
Planet Earth was stretched out around him in all its living green splendour. Banks of foliage stacking up from the river, behind him a forest. “Summer in a temperate zone,” he thought. “A hospitable season.” He began to walk along the river bank, the buzz of insects a constant soundtrack with occasional crescendos when he intersected the flight path of a bee, or a fly was drawn into the orbit of his sweaty head. “So real!” he said out loud, and then, “Felquick? Felquick, are you there?” The continuing buzz of insects. No Felquick. This was more real than reality. “My own man.” The river moved silently, broad and green, strands of green undulating in slow motion along the surface.
A bird flew out of the trees with a menacing call – smart black and white livery, long-tailed, strutting now along the water’s edge, sunlight revealing a sheen of blue and green over the jet black plumage. “Birds,” he thought. “When did birds evolve from dinosaurs? What era am I in?”
He walked on down the river. He felt an almost invincible strength surging through his body but he moved like a herbivore, stopping regularly, scanning the landscape for potential predators. He picked up a sturdy branch and wondered which he should fear more – dinosaurs, other wild animals, or humans. “Just a game,” he told himself, but the beads of sweat at his temples argued otherwise.
He was on the inside of a meander now, tiny wet pebbles embedded in grey sand. The metallic azure of a kingfisher pulls his gaze skimming down the river, the sudden intensity of colour causing a sharp intake of breath. The heat of the Sun has him paddling through the cool water of the little beach. The Sun is still high in the sky. He decides to head for the shade of the woods.
The alarm calls of birds resonate through the cathedral of overarching boughs. A deep rich odour of life-giving decay rises from the softness underfoot and everywhere he looks there is overlaid pattern of light, shade and form – the infinite variety of life.
A beam of sunlight piercing the forest canopy turns insects momentarily gold as they fly back and forth from a patch of grasses and wild flowers. He kneels among the verdant plants as if he too could drink their nectar. A braid of tiny white star-shaped flowers draws his eyes to a stalk from which a geometrical marvel is strung. The spider, its glistening web complete, drops down on a silken thread and slowly rotates, legs outstretched. Richard Stellon has stopped thinking. His concentration on the spider has become so intense that he too is a tiny weightless thing slowly spinning in a sunbeam. He has never felt such benevolence, the complete absence of worry, and his mind continually opening, wider with each rotation of the miniature spider, in a forest on Planet Earth, his ancestral home, where he belongs.
A new movement catches his eye. A person leaps up onto a fallen tree and runs on through the forest, lithe and agile, with the sure-footedness of a woodland animal. He jumps to his feet in amazement as the naked woman disappears through the trees. He’s running now, pursuing a vision of human perfection. He calls to her, “Kaitar!” But she doesn’t stop, doesn’t look round.
He tries to keep up, but her image is a distant blur. The air begins to change. It feels drier and there’s a strange smell, almost sweet, but unsettling. The trees are thinning. The Sun beats down on his back again. The smell is getting stronger, more acrid, and something smokey too, like something cooking. He has lost sight of her.
Underfoot is hard and unforgiving. The smell has become sickly, unbearable, burning the back of his throat. He’s crossing a barren landscape of rocky escarpments.
He stops. She is nowhere to be seen. Looking back there is no sign of the forest or the river either. Wisps of smoke rise in the distance. He feels like retching on the strangely viscous atmosphere, and then he sees something moving on the horizon, unsteadily, hobbling along.
He walks to meet it, a mixture of revulsion, pity and fear pumping within his chest. What the hell is it? The stench, he realises now, is rotting flesh. Nothing could survive in this heat for long. The thirst would have him on his knees soon. And then what? Following death the body would briefly turn to that sickening soup he could smell in the air before being cooked under the sun, dried to a mere husk among the rocks. But he had to know what it was. It was why he was here. It was the answer to the riddle. So he kept walking towards it.
They had come to a standstill by the time he reached them. Difficult to say how many. The machine itself looked like an insect by with a human torso at its mechanical centre. On top there were at least two more people. One of them was in flames, burning steadily like a camp fire, the other still alive but seconds away from death, its revealed ribs already whitening under the Sun.
The man that accompanied them looked healthy, vigorous even, but he was emotionally broken. He couldn’t even meet Richard’s eyes. His private hell was too intense for communication. There was a plume of feathers from his back, like a peacock’s tail, useless for flight. He dropped to his knees, discarded the compasses he had been holding, then fell forward on all fours, muttering to himself in a croaky voice:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.” He moaned in defeat. “My hands always tied. Urizen has no wings.” With that he looked up for the first time and just as their eyes met, Captain Stellon gasped for breath and found himself back in Kaitar’s lab, strapped down in the simuflex.
Kaitar undid the clasps and allowed the interface to disengage automatically. The headset slid apart like pieces of a puzzle and arced clear of Captain Stellon as he sat up rubbing his eyes.
“Welcome back,” she said. “I’m going to record our conversation. There’s a glass of water by the chair over there.”
Captain Stellon watched Kaitar move around the lab, recalling the curves of her naked body.
“There’s a feedback form for you to fill in, but for now I just want you to recount what happened in as much detail as you can.” She perched herself on the surface opposite him as he searched her eyes for something more than the appropriate professional detachment, and found nothing. But of course. Why would his hallucination have had any bearing on her feelings for him?
He took a moment to gather his thoughts and then began at the beginning.
He described the events with great accuracy, except for two points. He did not describe the woman in the forest, nor did he say that it was her, glossing over the episode with the words ‘a female’. The second gap in his version was right at the end. He’d clean forgotten the words spoken by the man in the desert.
“He said something… something important I think. His words were like poetry or something. I felt like it was coded. Deeply meaningful, but obscure, if you know what I mean.” Then with some annoyance: “Damn! Why can’t I remember the damn words? It seemed like the whole point of the experience. It seemed to explain everything.” He looked at her apologetically. “I’m really sorry Kaitar. That’s all I’ve got. I seem to have missed out the most important bit. Maybe it will come to me later.”
“No, that’s fine. You’re doing a great job.” She smiled. “It’s actually quite common for the key semantic denouement to have become occluded.”
“It’s quite common for people to forget the most meaningful words spoken.”
“Yes, it’s a bit like a dream state where things can be incredibly vivid in terms of perception and our faculty of understanding is engaged, profoundly activated, but at a level just below the linguistic.”
“Below the linguistic? But he definitely spoke actual words.”
“Oh yes, I don’t doubt that, but we often find the words are not as meaningful as they seemed in the psycho-active arena. In the rare instances when subjects have been able to recall the words spoken, they are often quite banal – half-remembered bits of text, sometimes even passages they once learned in their childhood and were not aware they still knew. It’s a mysterious mechanism. Some of us think archetypes are involved.”
“Hang about. Archetypes?”
“It’s an ancient theory. Goes right back to a man called Jung in the Common Era. The idea that the mind, like the body, has an evolutionary history, stretching back through the millennia, and that we share certain deep structures of the mind – symbolic narrative representations. There’s a lot of scientific evidence to show this may be the case. They were doing psycho-active immersion experiments long before the gaming industry got hold of it.”
“Your story, for example, conforms pretty closely to our template.” Captain Stellon’s expression clouded suddenly. “Yeah, it comes as a bit of a shock to hear that, I know. It all feels so personal of course, while it’s actually happening. But our electro-stimulation inputs set up a pattern of excitation – in your case we moved from positive to negative emotion, and cued your brain with contextual semantics: words, sounds, smells, colours… oh and insects… that’s what they employ me for.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to say I’m really chuffed the dragonfly came out so well. You described it perfectly by the way.”
“Oh thanks.” He smiled despite having lost the thread of the conversation.
“I invent insects!” She pronounced playfully.
“Don’t you mean discover?”
“No, I invent them. Other people discover them. That dragonfly never actually existed. I’ll show you the model if you like. It’s a kind of amalgam, much like your whole experience in the psycho-active arena. The amazing thing is how the brain constructs total experience out of such scant raw material.”
“But hang on. Are you saying the whole thing was directed?”
“Well they tend to go in a similar way: Some kind of natural communion with the return to Earth usually accompanied by a heightened aesthetic experience, nearly always a river followed by a forest (but that’s because of the perceptual clues), then there’s some kind of journey or quest, often involving a member of the opposite sex who takes the subject to the next stage of the narrative. Yours was a bit unusual in that there was a sexual component to this transitional phase.”
Captain Stellon hurriedly interrupted. “Oh, you mean that she was naked. Yes, she was naked. Did I forget to say that? Yeah, that’s true, we were both naked. But I didn’t say anything about it being sexual.” Kaitar casually placed the clinical observation notes on the table next to him. “It was more of a pure kind of vibe. It really was so beautiful there, like a kind of paradise,” he continued, but glancing at the clinical notes he read: TIME – 12 mins 34 secs – Sexual Arousal. Subject has Erection (53 second duration). Captain Stellon abruptly stopped talking and stared fixedly at the floor for a moment.
Kaitar deftly filled the silence. “Actually yes, the paradise archetype is one of the constants. Probably goes back to our evolution as a species, maybe even earlier. Religions often have that idea of a state of natural innocence, preceding a fall. The ancient Earth religions, like Christianity and Islam, had their paradise gardens, and all our contemporary myths seem to have Pre-Degradation Earth as their starting point, our paradise lost. Even that weird Muskovian story about the still birth in Biosphere One could be seen as a kind of dark paradise myth. All of these updates and reinterpretations are just an echo of the original evolutionary process that saw Homo sapiens emerge from a more purely animal state over millions and millions of years. The brain developed along with that change, you see, so it’s a hardwired narrative tendency if you like.”
“So you’re telling me my brain was coming up with a religious myth of some sort,” concluded Captain Stellon in a tone of resignation.
“We don’t need to bring religion into it, but myth, yes absolutely. We’re basically inducing a controlled mythic experience. We want Earth II to be an epic game in the fullest sense.”
“I see,” said Captain Stellon, somewhat deflated. He felt trivialised now, not to mention embarrassed.
By the time he’d filled out the feedback form the next subject had arrived in the waiting room.
“It was lovely to see you again, Kaitar.”
“Yes, what an incredible coincidence!” she said one more time. “We must have that drink. How are you fixed for Selt Set?”
“I can do Selt Set. Let me know a time and place. I can tell you all about how I screwed up college.”
“Well, this is the nearest I’ve got to Planet Earth so far, so I can’t really boast either.” She gave him that magical smile as they shook hands, and he was captive again.
On the way out of the building, laughter rang in his ears. Hysterical laughter.
“Well, I had to pretend it was a coincidence. She’d have thought I was stalking her otherwise. Some things are best left unsaid,” remarked Captain Stellon, hoping to pre-empt Felquick’s hilarity.
“I’m not laughing at that,” said Felquick.
“She must have sat there timing your erection,” said Felquick and was off again with the hysterical laughter.
Captain Stellon remained steely faced as he stepped out into the plaza. He had a lot to think over, and those pills hadn’t completely worn off.